ASIAN WOMEN THEOLOGIANS REFLECT ON THE USE OF CYBERSPACE
By Ms. Virginia Saldanha
Asian women’s feminist perspectives on “Wired Asia - Towards an Asian Feminist Theology of Human Connectivity” had academic audiences in the West for the first time at a theological conference in Asia. One session of the 5th biennial conference of the Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA) was hooked up to locations half a world away where three papers by Dr. Kochurani Abraham, Ms. Virginia Saldanha, and Dr. Agnes Brazal were listened into by Fordham in New York, Loyola in Chicago, Santa Clara University in California, Barry University in Florida and Boston College.
Papers at the conference ranged from “Take Back the Tech! Take Control of Technology for Women’s Rights”, “From Cyber Church to Faith Tweets: Religion 2.0 on the Rise?” to concerns about women in Call Centres, the Gendering of Cybertech, the ‘dangerous’ terrain of Twitter & Facebook, the negative/positive impact of the internet in Bangladesh and the impact of the misuse of the internet on Migrant Workers, High School Girls, women’s sexuality and body. On the more positive side, papers spoke about how the “Digital Revolution is Flattening the World for Asian Women”, Women in Cyberspace – A Key to Emancipatory Policitics of Location”, women as “Spirited Cyborgs”, and “Spiritual Praxis through Photography: towards an Authentic Media Behaviour”.
From 5th to 9th November the evening reflections led by Julia Ong helped participants to realize that the democracy of the internet has no boundaries so it can pose both a great challenge and opportunity. Stories of how children and vulnerable people are victims of crimes in cyberspace raised many questions and fears about introducing this as a space for women, therefore the need to recognize that negotiating cyberspace with safety demands tremendous maturity and balance. Stealing of identities, stalking, cyber-bullying, masquerading, sexual harassment, pornography, virtual sex, etc. are real threats. Women have to be guided and trained to become effective netizens in the globalized digital networked age so that they can use it for their benefit and avoid the pitfalls.
While the real world is reflected in the virtual world, the virtual world does impact the real world. This is seen in the way changes are taking place in the ideas of ‘intimacy’ and ‘public’, in demands for transparency and accountability while new benchmarks for authority are being sought.
Connecting is not necessarily bridging, therefore we have to be consciousness of using connectivity to bridge the gaps so visible in Asia between the rich and poor, male and female, majority and minority populations, etc.
We need to be aware that cyberspace is a capitalist venture which feeds masculine fantasies. Women are insignificant as owners of capital therefore women who have little or no voice have to negotiate for space. This points to the need for much awareness raising on the unethical practices of Corporates, and the possibilities of being cheated. “There will always be lights and shadows in the digital world, there is a need to continue to question, and not to take things at face value. What is offered for free, may not always be ‘free’. What are the true costs of being connected 24x7? Is it sustainable? Does it enhance my health, my relationships and my lifestyle?” advised Dr. Pauline Cheong, from the Arizona State University. The boundaries of truth presentations could be blurred so while young people are by far tech savvy, they need our guidance in negotiating this dangerous terrain.
‘There are tensions and paradoxes in the new media, but like the yin and yang there can be co-existence”, pointed out Dr. Cheong. While recognizing the power of space women have to move to the space of power so as to empower, transform and create new ideas towards justice and peace.
The new publication of EWA “Practicing Peace – Feminist Theology of Liberation, Asian Perspectives”, edited by Judette A. Gallares, RC and Astrid Lobo-Gajiwala was released at the conference. The book is a compilation of the papers of the EWA 4 conference on the title.
A regular feature of the biennial meetings is a dialogue with women working to bring about change within other faith traditions. We found much common ground in our dialogue with the Sisters in Islam represented by Ms. Marina Mahatir, daughter of former prime minister of Malaysia. She shared how the ‘Sisters’ have taken up issues like violence to women, imposition of the hijab, and done research on the impact of bigamy, reforms in Islam (e.g. the concept of male authority) and worked on various laws to protect women.
Four members who have recently acquired their PhD, Fu Lan Yap, Kristine Meneses, Bibana Ro and Teresa Tsui were introduced and two presented a synopsis of their thesis. Myanmar EWA working to empower women at the grassroots were given a space to share their about their work as well.
EWA started in Bangkok in 2002 and is running its tenth year. EWA is a space created by women theologians in Asia to give visibility to the contributions of Asian women in shaping and transforming the Church and world. EWA is evolving from just a forum of paper presenters, to becoming a forum where the praxis of study, reflection, action and transformation is being implemented. Their growth through study and taking up concerns of women in Asia could make them a source of women’s empowerment in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century.